Film review: Becoming Mona, 2020, Netherlands – premiering in South Africa at The European Film Festival

What: Becoming Mona Where: European Film Festival, South Africa 2020 Genre: Family genre Language: Dutch/Flemish, English subtitlesWhen: November 12-22, 2020 Bookings:

Becoming Mona conjures up a beautifully textured and poignant  portrait of a young woman who seeks to please and comfort everyone, to the detriment of her own happiness.

It won Dutch Critics Prize at the Netherlands Film Festival and is premiering in South Africa, on the European Film Festival which is online because of Covid. There is no charge to watch the film on this 2020 virtual edition, with the exception of I am Greta which is being screened as fundraiser to support a climate change charity.

Becoming Mona is based on the book, Kom hier dat ik u kus (Translated into English: ‘Mona in Three Acts’) by Belgian author Griet Op De Beeck. As with the book, the film is laid out in three acts and has a theatrical quality. I could imagine watching Becoming Mona on stage.

There is often a nurturer in a family, who props up others and feeds into the egos and narcissism of the Alpha players in a family unit and this is intensely played out in Becoming Mona.  In the first frame, we see young Mona who has been literally cast aside in the naughty corner by her unhinged mother. The mother dies in an accident and you go – ‘phew- well she is gone’ but her replacement – Marie – Mona’s stepmother is also unhinged. She lives on happy pills. Mona’s father, Vincent is wrapped up in himself, concocting a narrative of a happy family without regard for the feelings of his offspring. A dentist, he has Mona in his chair, doing a check-up of her teeth while he has an important discussion with her on family matters. As he probes, for cavities, he muzzles her as she can only grunt and nod answers – affirmation of what he wants to hear. Mona is an essay in acquiescence.

The opening scene is framed like a painting by the Dutch Master, Vermeer- shrouded in dark and we get a glimpse into the cowering girl who has learned to say sorry to everything. This exquisitely sets the pace for this tense and intense film which follows the trajectory of Mona’s life in three acts- from young girl of nine to a woman in her mid-thirties.

I loved this film. There are no big plot reveals or twists. It is a study of family in pain and anguish; of attachment, dependency, guilt. It is a family which looks whole and prosperous but which is damaged at the core. The leitmotif which pops up throughout is a Christmas tree, set against the tinkling refrains of the Christmas song, Silver Bells [1950, written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, for the film, The Lemon Drop Kid, starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell]. Family is strung together by celebrations and festive table settings but underneath, lurks deep unhappiness.

The nuanced script teases out the repression in this family – the simmering discontent that lurks underneath. They buy into the illusion as they sit together. It is easier to project the delusion of a happy, unified family. They are compliant and pleasing Mother- Marie, while Father -Vincent is like a dangling unhappy presence.

Marie becomes increasingly unhinged and in one scene we see her racism in full force- casual racism many might say. By the way, to provide context, for the un-initiated, watching this scene, Dendermonde is a city, near Ghent in Belgium. I am not going to plot-spoil. It is a brilliantly composed scene, with the superb screenplay in force – minimalist and brutal. The family sits there; shocked. No one says anything. The dinner continues. Appearances must be kept up. As a viewer, I want to jolt them out of their complicity for not saying anything.

Ultimately this film is about complicity and co-dependency. Mona has to make the choice to untether herself from others who have her in their grip. It is hard to walk away from family and relationships in general. It is hard to go solo. I think that this film will strike a chord with people who are may reflect on why they continue to prop and fill up the emptiness in others.

This is not a lockdown film but it speaks of the intensity of relationships during the pandemic, when people keep silent and endure emotionally abusive behaviour because of proximity and because it is easier to endure than speak up. What is the alternative? To be alone and then what? This is a stirring film, impeccably crafted with powerful performances by young and older Mona and the ensemble cast. I think that the Covid edition of the festive season is going to heighten the ruptures in families. People will gather, after a year of uncertainty. Tables may be dressed and the Christmas tree may be there but everyone is at breaking point. Images will be put on social media- happy families – ‘we are chilled – we made it through the pandemic- look at our table’. Okay. Maybe some did just fine. For many, beyond the silver bells, there is pure dread.

This gentle and hyper-tense film, projects beautifully on a computer or TV. It doesn’t lose impact by not being on a big screen.

Becoming Mona- production details

Director: Sabine Lubbe Bakker, Niels van Koevorden

Cast: Tanya Zabarylo, Valentijn Dhaenens, Tom Vermeir, Wine Dierickx

Producers: Submarine (NL)

Genre: Drama

Origin: The Netherlands

Year: 2020

Running time: 100 minutes

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